Latch got his nickname in eighth grade owing to the fact that he was short and not particularly popular. As it turned out he was one of those guys with too many follicles, the whole crop the color of tobacco. Normally, you’d think, he should have owned a garage. A car-yard. A gas station even. He should have been successful in a small town kind of way.
Latch and Abigail drove through the night, hooked by the head-lit roads, the windscreen wipers and the rain. The world was washing itself. Around 5.30am, Abbie slid the Oldsmobile between two parked cars in front of a bungalow on Fryer Street.
Time had marched to a standstill. Abigail and Latch hadn’t spoken a word for seven and a half hours and weren’t about to start now. With no coffee-pot (Latch’s place had coffee grounds but no regular way of making coffee) Abbie sieved the grounds cup to cup. She sat down and rolled a cigarette. After the cigarette, she found a bowl of mash in the fridge, spooned it into a frying pan and watched it cook.
“Please Do Not Use The Fireplace,” read the sign in the toilet where Latch was basking under a lamp. A large furry spider, still dead, lay in the same place as two days before, beneath the jamb.
By eight o’clock both Latch and Abigail were gone.
“I don’t believe in fairy stories,” said Latch.
“We’re screwed then?”
“If you say so.”
Eleanor, Latch’s ex, was a handful. He switched her off.
“Thing is, women of my generation are trashy. The lowest of a lowest kind,” he announced.
“Maybe you attract the wrong ones, Latch,” said Sarah from the far corner of the office. Sarah was anything but trashy. Blonde, nineteen, a conservative outdoors type.
“Yeah? Y’ever met one wouldn’t sell their grandmother for a quarter?”
“There’s evil men and women in the world,” avowed Sarah.
“And I’m one of them,” said Latch.
“Oh yeah? Which one?” said Harvey without looking up from the screen.
Latch’s landscaping firm was in full swing. Grown from an everyday blow-job into a full time, freeway-size killing machine.
Mommy came through with the order to take out an entire town. Baldwin, Missouri. Population 1,982. The sort of project Latch had dreamt about since kindergarten. Mommy’s rationale was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was just an experiment to see if anyone noticed. Maybe someone had mentioned how beautiful the place was in fall. Maybe her son’s tiddlywink business had had an order cancelled from there. Who cared. There was so much planning and killing to be done that Sarah got to get involved, hands on, starting at after work drinks.
Given the problem of how to dispose of nineteen hundred and eighty two bodies Sarah came up with the idea of packing them all into transport planes and dropping them, alive and without parachute, into the ocean.
“The closest one, twat-brain.”
That was enough to convince Latch of her potential. Besides which, as Latch knew, she was dead-eye-dick with a rifle and had trophies to prove it. As the conversation progressed, Sarah’s practical farming background and good sense, which somehow made Harvey and Tom laugh raucously, proved irresistible to any problem.
A code name for the operation?
What did she figure a job like this would be worth?
Someone’s gonna miss all them people for sure.
How was the landscaping to go, once the town had been zeroed?
“I suggest Ghost Town.”
“Ghost town..” echoed Latch suspiciously.
“A terrible accident. Gas,” continued Sarah. “Whole area cordoned off.”
“No can do,” said Latch.
“Place has got to be leveled. Whole new town.. everything. You think I’m fucking mad?”
But even the improbable ‘Ghost Town’ scenario somehow got wangled into the scheme of things.
Montreal. Greatest city on earth if you like six foot of snow. It took fourteen hours for the subject to die. Most of the day and some of the night. By the time the stars came out Abbie had the whole thing figured. She’d invite Tom for a drink. And then bonk him silly. She could taste the champagne already. It’d be like a love triangle, but they’d be only two.
There weren’t too many places to stay. Latch picked the cheapest motel he could find. To his amusement, Sarah bluntly refused to get out of the car. She wouldn’t wear it. It was pus, she said. She wasn’t in the mood for his sense of humor neither. So Latch drove her to some place else. She was her own boss. She could sleep where she liked. Latch stayed put.
All the same, they ended up together, strolling about. They found a park. Founders Park. Baldwin wasn’t that big a town. Since working at Middleton Scott, Sarah had developed an interest in plants. She rattled off some names of shrubs and trees as they walked by. If she didn’t know, she maybe walked over, looked at the bark or something and came back and said “I don’t know what that is.” If Latch knew, he wasn’t letting on. They sat down at a table and studied the graffiti.
“People are weeds. Or else roses to be picked or pruned. This lot is weeds,” observed Latch. Their gaze drifted across the park. It was that time of day where the sun had gone down but was still shining on the hills. People remained in the park, playing ball, or walking, or just plain looking at the lake. Dogs were on leads. Rectangular beds of crimson and red flowers were waking up. Springtime. But the park trash hadn’t arrived.
“Let’s go back,” said Latch.
“Let’s not,” said Sarah.
When Latch got wiped out, Sarah wasn’t sad. She wasn’t nearly anything. She’d seen so much death on the farm it didn’t matter.
Thursday evening the whole team met at The Vineyard.
“We’ll be staying here forever.” Latch had his glass in the air. “This is our assignment. This town here. Mommy wants a new one. New fences, new schools, new houses, new people! New streets! New farms, new fucking animals! The current design is crap! But you know what? Mommy thinks we’re fuckheads. We’re hard labor. We got no vision. We swapped our vision for ashtrays..”
Latch put his glass down. The seventeen followed, more or less. The camera crew hovered like robots.
“Look at it this way. I am Subman. We are Submen! With our sub-powers, we have come to rescue ourselves from life! From work. From marriage. From any fucking thing we feel like! I say: we like ashtrays! What are we, half-Submen?!”
There was a silence around the table.
“What sub-powers, then?” queried a voice out the blue.
The silence continued, not knowing which way to look.
“Principally, my enormous, donkey-size cock!” announced Latch.
Everybody laughed except the camera crew. The camera crew hardly ever laughed. Latch raised his glass again, this time higher. “You know the rules. Let’s eat.”
All raised their glasses.
Sarah ate oysters, together with the best sauvignon blanc money could buy. After all, she was Subwoman.
Later that evening Sarah hooked up with Abigail at the swimming pool. Abbie was at a loose end, between boyfriends. Her last boyfriend had taken her calling off the affair so well she almost wanted him back. Before that, she was chewing through them as fast as she could go. Now she was confused. She swam the backstroke.
Afterwards, when Latch was no more, Mommy made contact with Sarah. Latch had been recalled, she said. Sarah could take charge.
“Tell me the joke again?” Sarah protested. “I’m only the secretary,”
“The Secretary,” corrected Mommy.
Sarah didn’t reply to that. Instead, she listened.
Latch got recalled in this way. Stopped at the lights, his car window mostly open, a hand came through the window and lightly touched his neck. Latch wouldn’t make it back to the hotel that early morning, or nearly any place else.
It was the morning they were meant to leave. As planned, Sarah turned up at The Roswell at 7.00am. A film of water clung to the street, waiting to be evaporated.
From the lobby, she took the lift to the top floor. Like every place Latch had ever stayed at, all was vile, including the old lady carpet, the architraves, the scummy cream, flower-patterned wallpaper, the ceiling height, the light fittings, the door handles, you name it.
Room 521. The door was unlocked. A living room, everything tidy. Sarah called out but there was no answer. She checked the bedroom and bathroom. Bed made, suitcase packed. Clean clothes were lying on the couch. No sign of nobody. All plastic décor and shitville furniture. It was like the whole show had been hollowed out from the inside.
Sarah headed back down to the lobby. No one was up. She pressed the buzzer a full ten seconds and waited. As though the message had gone through to the wrong person, some guy walked in and began loading laundry bags out to his truck. He looked up at Sarah, his hair long and bright red.
“Who you looking for?” he asked.
A lady in a purple dressing gown appeared from behind the counter.
“My boss,” said Sarah.
After that, Sarah drove back to Burton Lodge and got everyone up and running, including the film crew. Someone had to do it.
Sarah and Abbie arranged to meet at Remy’s, mid afternoon. They sat at an outside table.
Sarah thought Abbie the most strikingly beautiful woman she had ever seen. Green eyes with friendly eyebrows. The world’s most fascinating lips. Skin for a blind man. Together with a perfectly proportioned personality. Honey pullover and cream trousers. Abbie’s shoes matched her hair (cut shorter than before) and her hair matched her pullover. Honey, honey, cream, honey. Abbie was perfect. As every woman is. Only more perfect.
It wasn’t easy to keep murder out of the conversation.
“The monster?” repeated Sarah, taking a sip of wine.
“The monster inside,” confirmed Abbie. “Tame him like a stray dog? Not so cute. You’re a farmer. You ever seen a sheep go wild?” She paused, lighting a cigarette. “Sheep in the field are the dumbest animals you’ll ever see. A new born lamb will just as likely mistake an aeroplane for its mother. There are several species of insect smarter than sheep. But the sheep that gets out the fence, finds a little hole down the creek and crawls through cos the weeds look so good, and then all of a sudden she’s on the outside chewing up herbs she’s only read about, and they taste so good. And you know what? Within three and a half days she’s clicked into action. She’s awake on all cylinders, aggressive, cunning, resourceful.. she does everything right. Because she knows who she is.” Abigail put her hands on the table. “We are that sheep,” she said. “Problem is, we move in both worlds. In and out. Two at once. Both sides of the fence. And look, Sarah, if your overalls are covered in shit and you wash them with your other clothes, then all your clothes get washed in shit.”
Sarah remained silent, not quite having understood.
Abbie’s expression lightened. “Wash your overalls separately,” she said with a most beautiful smile.
Sarah clicked. Keep things separate. Like men. Who knows, if you put them together, they’d probably like each other. “We’ll do it our way,” she said.
They clinked glasses.
“Let our monsters be friends,” said Abbie.
“I sleepwalk,” said Sarah out of the blue. “All the time.” As if that was something her new friend ought to know.
“Good. You can kill while you’re asleep,” said Abbie and flashed her tits at the waiter serving two tables away.
Baldwin was yesterday’s crossword. Wiped out and filed under ‘F.’ Sarah told Abbie how she’d even managed to find time to dispatch a few herself, one entire family who lived over the river in a gray colored farmhouse. She figured, what was the point in organising a pie fight if you didn’t get to throw a few yourself? So she got dressed up in her riding gear. Mom, pa and two teenage boys. Mom went first, shaking hands at the front door getting her photograph taken. Fried to a toast with forty thousand volts. Likewise the dog. Really funny. As planned, the boys were around back working on some piece of equipment looking vaguely like a tractor but which wasn’t. Dad stood up at the sight of the shotgun.
“Can we have your names, please?” Sarah asked in her best voice.
“You must.. er.. my name’s.. Dan Huber. And m..” he said. That was as far as he got. The beauty of shotguns, apart from anything, was the way they could, if fired at the right moment, by the right person at the right target, blow that bulls-eye backwards. Almost off the ground. A beauty not wasted on Sarah. Neither her assistant Harriet, as it turned out.
After that, she turned to the younger boy. “And you will be?” She put on her best angelic-mommy smile. In the imaginary click of a trigger his poor little virgin heart got blown clean into the next world.
The other boy, Ed, just turned seventeen according to the paperwork, was already scrambling towards the barn. It was then, in the moment she put a shot through his shin, that Sarah decided she was good at this job. The boy rolled over in agony, clutching his leg with both hands. He had blond hair and was kind of handsome. She walked closer. His leg was a mess.
“Please ma’am, don’t shoot me!” he pleaded. Something like that. Their eyes met.
“Already have,” said Sarah. It was a funny feeling, strangely close to falling in love. She placed the end of the barrel against his chest.
“Getta life,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
Harriet duly noted the death on her organiser.
Anyway, the razing of the town had gone hummingly well in a mayhem kind of way. God! Zombies writhed in agony or gasped in surprise. One went down, another popped up. They were almost congratulating each other on their bona fide acting skills. So much fun! But in the end, they all ended up dead. The cops that hadn’t wanted to die as Zombies died as cops. Mommy was right. Sarah was a born pie-fight angel. Although she hadn’t, after all, got to get involved with the re-design, or even the clean up. Diggers, trenches, body counts, water blasters. Wrecking balls, dozers, hiabs and bobcats. Reconstruction and reconstitution. Shovels, laser levels, pea-metal, drainage pipes. Pouring concrete. Building shit. Planting shit. Just thinking about it made her horny. Instead, she was back pen-pushing. Numbers, numbers. There was always a new job. Mommy was fickle like that.
“But here I am, talking about myself.”
Latch’s legs never woke up at all. They were hanging on meat hooks above the bed. Instinctively, he closed his eyes. But there was no going back. The will to be had stirred. Neurological messages got sent, arrived at the stump of a limb and got sent back again. Wrong address.
A sweet, putrid panic took over Latch’s brain like a toy steering wheel. Above, his suspended rotting limbs were saying goodbye the only way they knew how.
As he looked down his naked body (the stumps of his limbs neatly bandaged) no words or screams or feelings arrived to match the vision.
No longer willing to look up, he tilted his head to one side. A telephone, a vase of flowers and a card sat on the table. “Welcome to Vietnam,” it said.
He threw up.
Four hundred and three miles above the Pacific Ocean, Dimitri sat aboard his TCIS staring at the screen. The photograph of a woman stared back at him. He scrolled through the other shots. The Chinese, God bless them, were always exactly half an hour late.
“THE SECRETARY,” read the file. “Born Sarah McLaughlin, December 19, 2013, Baines, Oklahoma. Parents: James and Susan, goose farmers.”
“Fuck me,” said Dimitri. “Farmers of geese.” He took another swig on his bottle of firewater.
A swig in space is a funny thing. Of primary importance is the customised shot-pourer calculated to deliver a globule of colored firewater of adjustable volume capable of hovering and bobbling indefinitely before the mouth. One swallows the globule as the frog might a fly, though lacking a tongue. Tongues are of no use at all in space apart from tasting. But then they are without equal.
On a good night, Dimitri might release four or five globules in one go, breathing lightly on each (funnily enough, air too is weightless in space, much in the same way that thoughts are weightless on earth), then spending a pleasant thirty five minutes or so hunting them down, all the while talking to himself in his native Russian dialect.
Coloring was optional as the globules were sometimes hard to see.
Occasionally, a globule might self-destruct upon contact with some nasty object, which could also be a funny thing, although harder to swallow.
A murder in space is a funny thing. Likewise making love. Lots of things are funny in space.
Sarah’s new job was the roadworks contract for the entire Fresno area. There was a catch however. Deconstruction and repair (repair ought to be essential for the sake of appearances) was to happen, near as blankets, at tortoise pace. Mommy had made it fairly clear. Disrupt the traffic as much as possible. Ultimately, say within a certain period of time, roadworks vehicles were to be the only viable means of transport. Though not, of course, available to the public.
Sometime before “The Zombie Queen,” Sarah had Harriet hire the appropriate people, one team of which now had the on-going job of figuring out the worst time of day for road works, and the worst place. Preferably both. Generally speaking, all road works were good.
The Baldwin movie was the rage. A coast-wide hit. “The Zombie Queen.” Sarah hadn’t seen it, but nearly everyone at The Cornerest Bar had.
“They even got Latch in there getting swiped, and then his arms getting cut off,” Abagail told Sarah. “He wakes up in some hospital. You should see it.”
On top of being supernaturally beautiful, Abbie was also a heavy drinker. Mostly champagne. One pleasant problem she’d had with her boyfriends was that they often weren’t up to scratch alcohol-consumption-wise. Bob would end up in tears, kneeling in front of her cunt, begging it to conceive. Jack would get insanely jealous, 3am in the kitchen, and start washing the dishes. For that matter, the week after she’d dumped him, she remembered her husband of three months staring in through the bedroom window with the look of a hairless possum, she being in bed with her next man.
Some just talked a river of shit, which was cool with Abbie as she liked poetry.
“Men are totally stupid, and totally stupid at the same time. Plus they wear out. Would you think I haven’t had an orgasm in three weeks?” she yelled over the top of the bar noise. A band was playing in the corner.
“William’s cool,” Sarah yelled back. “Come horse riding tomorrow.”
“No. I gotta find a man.”
Sarah pondered for a second. “Looks like you might have met your match.”
In the company helicopter, Sarah circled higher and higher until Fresno looked like some kind of high tech camp for miniature lesbians. She knew she was dreaming. On screen was a video game called “The Human Nest.” Or “A Nest of Humans,” it was hard to tell. Anyway, in this game, life carries on as per normal, wherever it is supposedly happening, for example like the freeway, but then you have your little X button at the touch of which some kind of mayhem ensues.. the freeway bridge collapses, cars splat onto another freeway below, and you get one enormous pile-up, plus a lot of wreckage slash injured and/or dead people.
Your opponent is in charge of all the soldier ants. Police, ambulances, the fire department, social services, the IRS, workplace support, the army, the Navy Seals, the United Nations, the IMF, Immigration and Customs, the Salvation Army, Interpol, the CIA, the Feds, the National Guard, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Nigerian Secret Service, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, the Coastguard, NASA, the SPCA, etc.
The object of the game was to..
“Sarah,” said a voice in her ear, but it seemed far away. Then it said her name again and put its hand on her shoulder. Her cockpit chair swiveled round to meet the hand. At the same time, she reached into her hand-bag with her left hand, felt for the Glock, and without hesitating, fired one round into the middle of the imposter’s stomach.
The crack of the gunshot woke her up. The ghoulish, grey-green glow of the computer screen seeped into the room, otherwise dark. Her boyfriend Jimmy looked on with a pained expression. She swiveled round to the screen, then slowly back again.
“Oh my God,” she said.
She looked down at the gun. Luckily, it was only a tampon.
That night in Ho Chi Minh City, through the windscreen, the rain looked more beautiful than every single movie ever made.
Latch turned the wipers on and pulled out on Strasbourg. Now he could see.
They were the two personalities of a schizophrenic, except they lived in different bodies. Hugo was French. That was also his nickname. Huge and ugly. A sullen son of a bitch. And Claire was this diminutive, cherry-pie type sweetheart, originally from Michigan. Together they owned the place, an American style burger bar on Rue Boh San. ‘White & One’ was a good place for a burger and coffee. Latch’s favorite was the McStupid, a kind of fish burger. Latch once asked the guy at the counter why it was called the McStupid.
“Cos, when you think about it, fish are exceptionally dumb,” the guy answered in a perfectamondo accent.
That guy on the counter knew all the company wisdom.